These carved wooden panels (called poupou) are typical of the type of panel made for Māori community meeting houses in New Zealand. There was no written language in pre-colonial Māori society. Traditional knowledge was passed down through stories and visual art, so art and design forms an important part of Māori identity and culture, and is full of meaning and symbolism.
Carvings on poupou panels represent the ancestors of the carver, the belief being that the carved figures will watch over people gathering in the meeting houses, and ward off evil spirits. The carvings also act as a spiritual connection between the tribe and their ancestors. It is thought that the carver of these panels was Hone Ngatato of the Ngāti Porou people of the East Cape and Gisborne regions of the North Island of New Zealand.
These poupou panels are unusual in that they were never in fact used in a meeting house. They were commissioned in 1867 for display at The Crystal Palace in London.
Communal meeting houses
Communal meeting houses (or wharenui) have an important place in Māori culture. Although they are not churches or specifically built for worship, religious rituals (such as weddings and funerals) often take place in front of, or inside, a meeting house. The houses are carved inside and out with stylised images representing the ancestors of the tribe.
Class activity: first impressions
This could be a whole class discussion activity or you could split the class into smaller groups.
Ask your students to look at these images of the poupou wall panels and describe their first impressions.
Use these prompt questions to get the discussion going:
- what can you see?
- what do the images make you feel?
- what do you think the panels are made from?
- how do you think they were made?
- how old do you think they are?
- where do you think they were made?
- what do you think they are for?
Class activity: watch, discover and discuss
This video was filmed with a group of students from Tulloch Primary School, visiting Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Watch the video with your class to discover more about the panels.
What did we discover?
Discuss the video with your students. These questions might be helpful:
- where were the panels made?
- who made them?
- what were panels like this made for?
- how were they made? What techniques and tools were used?
- who are the figures carved onto the panel?
- why do you think the figures have scary faces?
Have a go!
Taking inspiration from children in the video, as a class have a go at doing the All Blacks' Haka. Here are some tips:
What can we learn about Māori culture and religion from these panels?
Who are the Māori people?
Ensure that your students understand where New Zealand is and who the Māori people are. The Māori were the indigenous settlers of Polynesian origin, arriving in New Zealand in the early to the mid-fourteenth century. This children's encyclopedia article might be helpful for background research.
Maori religion and ancestor worship (whakapapa)
Although at the beginning of the nineteenth century many Māori people converted to Christianity, the traditional religion and gods are still a vital and relevant part of Māori culture and belief.
Central to the Māori belief system is that all living things are connected through common descent or genealogy. Whakapapa (pronounced 'fakapapa') is the word used in Māori culture to describe the importance of genealogy. The word whakapapa means literally to stack – to lay one upon another. It describes the layers of family that build up the past, the present and the future. Whakapapa is also a way for people to understand their place in their family, tribe and wider community.
As genealogy and connectivity were central to pre-Christian Māori religion, ancestor worship is an important part of traditional Māori culture and belief. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors can be called upon to help them in times of need and to protect them from harm.
Discussion: what is ancestor worship?
In the video, we discovered that the figures in the panels represent the ancestors of the carver. Ask your students:
- what is an ancestor?
- why are they carved onto the panels? What is their role?
- the figures look as if they are linked – or are standing on the shoulders of each other; what do you think the carver is suggesting by depicting the figures like this?
- It might help to explain what an ancestor is, and how we are linked to past generations, by thinking about a family tree – ask your students who their relatives are and how they are related to them.
- The role of the carved ancestors is to watch over and protect the people in the meeting house and to connect people with their ancestors.
- The column of linked figures suggests how families and generations, going back to grandparents and great-grandparents and forward to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are all linked. (This interview with England football team performance coach Owen Eastwood, who is of Māori origin, helps explain the concept of whakapapa: 'Each of us is part of an unbreakable chain of people, back into our past to our first ancestors, and into the future, to the end of time. Everybody has their arms interlocked so it’s an unbreakable chain'.)